Monday, June 28, 2010

Five tips for writers

A friend of mine is currently developing a Masks website as a class project, and asked me to write up some tips for aspiring writers. I enjoyed the exercise enough to reprint it here, since the website will be a strictly private project—at least for now.

Five Tips For Writers

First, write for yourself. If you do not love writing, all the money and fame in the world won’t make it worth your while. If you do love it, any reward will pale in comparison to the joy it brings you. You must love your story, you must love at least some of the hours you put in sweating over words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs. You don’t have to love every part of it—but you have to love the work as a whole. Writing is first and foremost an act of love. I used to tell myself that as long as I was writing something I loved, I would be content to spend my whole life writing, even if everyone else hated my work, and wish that life to be long. Now I’m living the life I only dreamed about when I was a kid, and I still find that writing is too much work to do if you don’t love it. So that’s lesson one—love your work, or find other work to do.

Second, read! I cannot stress this enough. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books you like and books you don’t. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read blogs. Read the encyclopedia, if you can find one. Carry something to read with you wherever you go. Read on the bus. Read while you’re standing in line. Your writing comes out of your hopes, your dreams, your thoughts, your ideas, and your memories—and reading enhances all of those. Reading gives you new words to use, new concepts to ponder, new ways of looking at the world. It gives you story ideas you could not have imagined. If a book is bad, figure out how it could be better. Look at how your favorite authors do things, and use that as your starting point for discovering how you do things. Most of all, just read! You will never be sorry. And you’ll never be bored in line at the bank, either. So that’s lesson two—when in doubt, read.

Third, be curious. Learn from the world around you. Watch what people do, listen to what they say. See if you can figure out what they’re thinking. Ask questions. Try to find out how things work. Use all of your senses, not just your eyes! Find out how things sound, how they feel, how they smell, how they taste. And pay attention to people. It’s been said that every person has at least one good story in them, and if you are a writer you will find people want to tell you their stories. Listen to them. You never know when they’ll come in handy. And thinking about the world beyond yourself is good practice for creating characters and worlds that can live outside your mind. So that’s lesson three—it’s not only okay to be curious, it’s vital.

Fourth, practice! The difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is that a writer actually sits down and writes. Even if it’s terrible, even if it sounds stupid, a writer writes. Practice writing first drafts—getting everything down on paper before it flies out of your head, sitting down for a few minutes or an hour or however long it takes you to finish something. Keep at it. When you’ve written your first draft, put it away for a while and practice patience. Then take it out again and practice revising and rewriting and polishing your work until it shines. Know that it’s always hard at the beginning, but the more you practice and the harder you work, the more delightful your work becomes. So that’s lesson four—writing is a skill that must be practiced or lost.

Finally, keep the faith. Writing is a solitary effort, and it means spending a lot of time by yourself, getting ink stains on your fingers and scars on your heart, before you’re ready to share your creation with the world. Being a writer means believing that you can write, and that you should write. That kind of faith must be fed, so be sure to spend time every once in a while with readers, other writers, or whatever you need to keep yourself believing. Sometimes faith means slogging through a draft, putting one word after another because you believe you’ll end up with something you’ll love. Sometimes it means accepting criticism because it’s good for your story, even if it hurts. Sometimes it means rejecting criticism because it’s bad for your story, even if it feeds your ego. Often it means working hard to tell the difference. But mostly faith means never forgetting that what you do is worth it. You are a better human being for having written, and the world is a better place for what you wrote. So that’s lesson five—have faith.

If you can do these five things, you can shake the world to its very foundations. And I, for one, look forward to seeing that. I can’t wait to read the stories you will write.

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